How to Stock a Moroccan Pantry: Harissa, Ras el Hanout, and More

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Unlike with, say, Thai or Indian food, you won't find a Moroccan restaurant in every city in the US. We wish it were so: Moroccan food, with its rich, long-cooked tagines, fluffy couscous dishes, and flaky pastries, is truly one of the world's most intoxicating cuisines. If you live in San Francisco, you're lucky—that's where Mourad Lahlou operates Mourad, one of the country's best Moroccan fine-dining restaurants. In the Boston area, Ana Sortun works Moroccan themes into her fantastic Middle Eastern–influenced restaurants Oleana and Sarma. Most of us, though, have to cook it ourselves, and for that we have guidance from the incomparable Paula Wolfert, who started traveling to Morocco decades ago, when she was 19 years old, and whose seminal The Food of Morocco has become the bible of traditional Moroccan cooking in the US. Lahlou and Sortun have also written cookbooks: Mourad: New Moroccan and Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, respectively.

Situated in North Africa, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Morocco takes influence from European, Arab, and Berber cultures. The country's famous souks (markets) are filled with beans and grains, marinated olives and oil-preserved vegetables, dried fruits and meats, and, of course, spices. Its location along the trade route between the Middle East, Asia, and Europe brought spices there thousands of years ago. Many of the everyday spices of Moroccan cooking—like cinnamon, cumin, ginger, turmeric, paprika, and white pepper—are common in other cuisines, too. But plenty of others are less frequently seen in the West, like cubeb pepper, ash berries, and nigella seeds. Some spice mixtures incorporate dozens of ingredients; Wolfert has reported hearing of blends containing more than a hundred. But don't worry—most recipes call for spices you already have.

Tagines—slow-cooked North African stews named for the domed earthenware vessel, invented by the Berbers, in which they are made—are frequent vehicles for these spice mixtures, steaming and stewing them into lamb, poultry, fish, or beef dishes. But you can also find spices in pastries like bastila, a poultry pie made with a layer of spiced meat, topped with flaky pastry and a dusting of cinnamon and almonds. Heat and sweetness are also important players in Moroccan cooking, with ingredients like dried apricots, honey, and date molasses playing off the ever-present chili-tomato condiment harissa. Briny things, like preserved lemons and olives, perk up dishes, as do lots of fresh herbs, such as cilantro and mint. Orange and rose flower waters frequently lend their perfume to all sorts of dishes. While couscous is a near constant on tables, other ancient grains and breads, such as the flaky pancake msemmen, are also in rotation. And although Moroccan food might be best known for its stews, salads are another integral part of the cuisine; an assortment of them typically composes a lunch.

To help us break down the Moroccan pantry, we turned to Sortun and her partner at Sarma, Cassie Piuma, and also checked in with Wolfert. Here's how to get started.

Preserved Lemons

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Wolfert calls preserved lemons "the most important condiment in the Moroccan larder." At Sarma, they're in constant use. "We make those in house, and it takes a couple of months," says Piuma, adding that Sarma's are packed with salt, coriander, and nigella. "We have a person whose job it is to make sure we're constantly rotating them." When the season for Meyer lemons—which are similar to thin-skinned Moroccan doqq lemons—rolls around in November, production at the restaurant kicks into high gear. The fermented citrus is used for salads, tagines, fish, and couscous, such as this recipe for chicken with olives and almond couscous. "A lot of preserved lemons out there taste medicinal or chemical, like a cleaning product," Piuma says. "It should be sweet, pickle-y, and fermented." She likes Belazu's thin-skinned preserved lemons.

Ceylon Cinnamon

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"I'm a big fan of good cinnamon," says Sortun. "It has to be really good—sweet, more floral, more gentle, not overpowering. In Moroccan cooking, cinnamon is very, very important." It's used in all sorts of savory dishes and often blended into a spice mixture, such as in tagines or these grilled lamb brochettes, or dusted on top of dishes like bastila. "Ceylon cinnamon is a lot lighter than cassia cinnamon, which is not true cinnamon," says Sortun. "[Ceylon] is a lot softer and sweeter and doesn't have the burn that the grocery store cinnamon has." It's worth investing in this cinnamon for cooking Moroccan food; if you do use the brasher cassia cinnamon, use less of it. Like any spice, it will keep for about six months in its ground form before losing its potency, and much longer stored whole.

Ras el Hanout

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"In Moroccan cooking, spice blends get very complicated," says Sortun. "Ras el hanout is a general word for a spice mixture—it means 'head of the shop.'" A reference to ras el hanout is, therefore, a bit like talking about a "curry," she adds. Both Sortun and Wolfert have spice blend recipes in their books, although Wolfert says hers isn't a true ras el hanout because it uses "safer" spices. (Traditional ras el hanout recipes have been known to include toxic ingredients like belladonna and Spanish fly; some say these are safe only when consumed as part of the spice mixture.) Sortun raves about Tangier N.23 from La Boîte, the premier New York spice blender, noting that the mix should be used up within three to six months. Wolfert recommends the ras el hanout from ChefShop and Zamouri Spices.

Saffron

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"Saffron is an essential ingredient in Moroccan cooking," says Sortun. "It should be earthy but also floral, and have a lot of other notes." It takes 150 crocuses to produce enough stamens for a single gram of saffron, famously the most expensive spice in the world. But a small amount can go a very long way—it's a truly transformative ingredient. Quality saffron is long, red, and brittle, not like what you'll find in the grocery store. Stored in a cool, dark place, saffron will keep indefinitely, but its flavor will start to fade after about six months. In Morocco, unlike in Spain, it is typically mixed with other spices, for dishes like braised chicken or harira, the country's national bean dish, which is also flavored with turmeric and ginger. Sortun's preferred method of using it is to bleed it in water first (a half teaspoon of saffron in a quarter cup of water); both the threads and the infused liquid can then be added to dishes, and will keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Where to buy the best? "There's a very new company called Rumi," says Sortun. "The stuff is phenomenal. It doesn't get any better."

Tomato Paste

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"In this culture, it's about drying, preserving, and concentrating things," says Sortun. "I think tomato paste is tremendously underrated. We just use a little bit, and it's 100% pure umami when you have a good one." Just a spoonful of tomato paste—typically sizzled in hot oil—will add depth to homemade harissa or a braised meat, and it can add body to vegetarian dishes. "We use a Turkish brand, Tukas," says Sortun. "The quality of ingredients is essential." Wolfert, meanwhile, uses her own recipe. Tomato paste keeps for a month in the refrigerator and up to a year in the freezer.

Harissa

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There are a lot of versions of harissa, the tomato-based chili paste, out there. It can be used as a condiment, for seasoning poultry or seafood, or mixed into tagines or other dishes, like this spicy carrot dip. Piuma looks for harissas that don't have a million ingredients or hard-to-pronounce chemical enhancers and preservatives. Her favorite is the rose petal harissa from Belazu. "It has a more nuanced flavor to me," she says. "The spices and heat are so carefully balanced to get the nuances of sweet and floral. You can eat it by the spoonful."

Date Molasses

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"We don't use sugar for much of anything," says Piuma. "Date molasses has almost a chocolaty, really rich, sweet-bitter thing going on. We use it a lot for Moroccan barbecue sauce and beef jerky. It's really lovely in iced tea, and the bar uses it for cocktails." What differentiates date molasses is its viscosity, which ranges from maple syrup–like to something akin to thick, unfiltered honey. Piuma prefers the thicker varieties, which tend to have a more intense flavor, but she and Sortun take what they can get, since suppliers sometimes run out; right now, they're using Salloum date molasses from Lebanon. "It's nothing more than dates and citric acid," says Piuma. "It's the purest essence of dates, liquid date."

Honey

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In addition to date molasses, Piuma uses honey—specifically raw, unfiltered honey—as a sweetener. Moroccan recipes are generally sweeter than Lebanese or Turkish recipes, and honey is traditionally used in many pastries, couscous, tagines, breads, and, of course, desserts and drinks, like Moroccan mint tea. "We use a lot of honey we get from Champlain Valley," says Piuma. "It has crystals, like a really good Parmesan, and a strong, in-your-face flavor." She recommends getting a robust artisanal honey, in the purest form possible—"not something heated and filtered."

Orange Blossom and Rose Waters

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"This is one of the most important ingredients in Moroccan cooking," says Sortun. Orange blossom water adds a nutty, floral flavor to preparations both sweet and savory, like couscous or a savory carrot salad. Sortun also cops to adding it to her chia coconut breakfast pudding, and says it's delicious with almond butter, too. According to Wolfert, it takes about seven pounds of orange blossoms to make a gallon of the distilled flower water. Distillations will keep for a long time when stored in a cool, dark place. Mymouné, a small Lebanese cooperative, is Sortun's preferred purveyor.

Brik Pastry

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In Morocco, the process for making brik pastry—also known as warqa—is incredibly labor- and skill-intensive. It requires dabbing a wet dough quickly and repeatedly on a hot surface to build up thin layers. Even though it's difficult to make, it's easier to use than phyllo dough—once removed from the parchment, it doesn't tear or dry out as quickly. It shares some features with the French crepe, and, in fact, the brand that Piuma uses at the restaurant is a product from France: Shape-A-Crepe brik pastry, which, like puff pastry, must be kept in the freezer. It can be stuffed with seafood, cooked with eggs, or used for bastila. Piuma likes to cut it up and deep-fry it to add a puffy, crispy topping to dishes.